Punctuated Action in Diceless Mechanics
Updated: Jun 8, 2022
The development blog of table-top role-playing game "Fight to Survive: Martial Arts Meets Heart" by James Kerr
What is Punctuated Action?
I'm making up a term, here, but I don't think it's a big leap, so please excuse my arrogance. Broadly, "punctuated action" is a term describing the moment where players of a table-top role-playing game (ttrpg) are inarguably within the design space of the game. It happens within that invisible moment where the rules of the game take over, and you're no longer just chit-chatting. It will take me several paragraphs to get at what that means, exactly, before even tackling why that's important.
Punctuated action is not the moment "when the rules kick in" but it is a significant aspect within that space. If we think of a poster nailed to a tree: on the poster are the rules to the ttrpg, the act of reading it is when you are now in the rules-space, and the nail holding up the poster is the moment of punctuated action. You don't pay much attention to the nail, but it's the movement you can point at during conceptual events that can be quite nebulous to say: "we're in it now. We're not just discussing. There is a framework and we're on the inside."
Specifically, punctuated action is a moment of importance in play, made important only through shared agreement to invest in the game. The moment must be mechanically signified, inarguable within the scope of the rules, must have a clear in-game effect, and hinges on a known relationship with the rules.
To put it another way, punctuated action happens in that moment when free-roleplaying (that is to say, largely structureless conversation of in-game considerations) transitions to a formal rules structures, because of the recognition that this is an "important" moment, which is only important because the players involved are invested in the fictional relevance of the game.
The best example is a traditional one: that moment when the GM says: "Okay, roll for it", and the excitement of everyone leaning in at the table to see what the die result will be, and waiting with anticipation for the GM's ruling. The mutual agreement that happens all at once that transitions play from diceless resolution (I am super strong, so I lift up the barrel, right? Sure) to a moment of branching possibilities, and the sense of player anticipation that comes from it, which gives the moment meaning, is the point at which you are actually playing a table-top role-playing game. That is the point of investment where suspended belief unifies with gaming structures to create a sensation of relevant imagined stakes, a specific sensation of verisimilitude, and perhaps the most important one for ttrpgs.
Why Punctuated Action Matters
Effectively, punctuated action demonstrates that system matters, because the rules are dictating what moments are singled out as important.
There can be all kinds of acknowledged action behaviour that happens in-game by players and GMs. What makes the idea of punctuated action unique is that it is a moment that involves both awareness and investment in the importance of the in-game behaviour under the rules structure. A ttrpg can be full of rules, but if those rules lack of a sense of importance in their implementation and in what behaviour they reward, regardless of their supposed internal consistency, then the ruleset is not conducive to achieving its genre emulation or any other play goal, immersive or otherwise.
Punctuated action involves a brief but significant social contract between the GM and players, or simply between players. The moment has to be recognised by the players in order to be significant, and the nature of how this is set up informs what the game is trying to achieve (for example, in terms of genre emulation.) Across the table you all say: "Yes, we are agreeing that this imaginary thing is important to us, at least for the moment, and the rules facilitate our understanding of this moment by design."
This event structure underlies all larger mechanical considerations within a system and is what separates table-top role-playing game mechanics from collective storytelling exercises and parlour games. I'm not knocking storygames. I play those, too, and have designed a few, but I take issue with people defining ttrpgs as simply conversation, or even as shared narratives, because even with a decentralization of the power structures and the distribution of the role of the GM it is still how the game marks change in its events—how it punctuates action—that distinguishes a play experience from a writer's room. Claiming a ttrpg as a shared story experience does not give enough credit to the moments of punctuated action that are really the spark of life in play.
Punctuated action involves an element of plausible deniability; a false structure of "because it is true", which of course it is not; there is simply a shared agreement to regard it as the truth. The crux of action (the vessel of change) does not feel false in a ttrpg because it does not feel arbitrary, and it does not feel arbitrary because of displaced authority. As the a clear example that is probably too narrow, because it involves dice specifically, but at least it is easily understandable—the action does not feel arbitrary "because the dice said so". On one hand that sounds absurd, but any role-player with some experience can relate to the sentiment.
Why Should I Care?
If you are a ttrpg designer, the concept of punctuated action can help you design your rules structures such that the in-game behaviours it encourages feel meaningful.
From a ttrpg design perspective punctuated action is a general concept, not a specific implementation, but it leads to broad-stroke play direction that is pretty fundamental to what you may want to achieve in a system in terms of soliciting response from players. (GMs aren't strictly necessary for this, as they aren't strictly necessary for ttrpgs, but in both cases they help facilitate the clarify the behaviour, so I'll continue using the term in my examples.)
The concept of punctuated action has been buried, conceptually, by the use of dice in ttrpgs that have done the heavy lifting on the concept. However, important moments within a game can happen without dice, so to understand how moments come to feel important within the framework within a rules system (beyond narrative manipulation of story-driven stakes, of course) it's important to pick apart the significance of the inborn mechanic of punctuated action.
Why Dice are Easy for Design
Rolling dice makes the identification of punctuated action relatively easy, and that ease is perhaps why game designers do not always consider the moment of punctuated action as design space.
For the few brief seconds when the dice are rolling players are in anticipation of what it going to happen next. That anticipation punctuates the moment; the action is signified by that rattling sound on the table. For the briefest space all outcomes are possible, until the universe solidifies and only one thing happens. A similar moment happens when the GM (or, depending on the system, another player) arbitrates the result. The mechanic involved in rolling a dice to determine (or at least contribute to) a pivotal outcome in conjunction with other known and shared rules considerations is what serves to mark the scene, make the moment distinct, and illicit excitement (as well as whatever specific responses might be drawn out) from the players. In other words, "punctuated action". This is also why stories of table-top rpgs to the layman are often so boring; it is difficult to communicate the significance of the moment.
The Problem With Dice
Dice are fun. However, there are problems trying to use them for conflict resolution structures. If, for instance, your game involves inherent hyper-competency among the player characters, then the unpredictability of dice can become a narrative liability. You are known world-wide as an expert swordsman, and you wish to intimidate your foe with a flair of blade twirls to get them to back down? You roll a 1, and stab yourself. I'm hyperbolizing, but only a bit. At a certain point the swordsman's player will get pretty frustrated with that possibility. Dice ttrpgs often seek to address this with dice pools, and while that smooths the probability curve it brings in other problems when emulating certain attitudes; for example, if your have enough dice in a pool, your rolls are going so often going to have the same result that the player may wonder why they're rolling dice at all. I've heard people express that at the table, but follow up with: "But rolling dice is fun, I guess..." as though they weren't sure.
Dice work well if you're designing certain kinds of games, but there is a huge Wild West of design space out there for ttrpgs and dice are not always the best way to achieve all design objectives.
On the other side of the design pond, diceless games are often seen as having an arbitrary sense of action, are characterised by hand-waving to the "magical tea party" extent. This reputation is not entirely undeserved, but I don't think it's coming from the place people think it's coming from. I believe it derives from a lack of distinguished mechanics for moments of punctuated action.
How to Punctuate Action Without Dice
If you are designing a game without dice (and there are many reasons to use or not use dice) then you need to think carefully about how to punctuate action without them.
Dice are a wonderful cheat because you can attach almost anything to that result (you add modifiers, you reference the number on a chart, you need to roll higher, lower, or on a certain number) and the action feels significant on a player-side. The dice nicely reinforce the social contact between the GM and players, and a baked-in plausible deniability. The GM says "I didn't kill your character, the dice killed your character", but of course the extent of GM influence in most games obviously far outstrips the scope of dice results.
When you take dice away there are several things that can replace them, but the key is to ensure the behaviour in the game does not feel arbitrary. If it does, the design has faltered. Players will not take it seriously. Their interest will dictate they seek other passions.
Proponents of diceless mechanics will tell you that you already play dicelessly, and have for years. Important and significant moments can happen in-game without needing a dice roll to single them out. The challenge is designing a rules structure were all diceless resolution feels meaningful. How do you form punctuated action without the crutch of dice?
How Other Games Attempt to Solve the Problem
Most diceless games punctuate action with a meta currency that gets transferred around the table, or multiple meta-currencies that are given importance though their scarcity and the reward for spending or transferring them.
I didn't want to deal with a meta currency for my game, Fight to Survive (remember that the intent of this blog was for me to channel my thoughts in development of Fight to Survive specifically), if I could help it, because I find on the player side they take me out of verisimilitude ever so slightly when I have to quantify what should be a subconscious aspect.
So, I looked at a game I love—Amber Diceless Role-playing by Erik Wujick, perhaps the most famous diceless system, where there is a delicate balance for punctuated action that can work out, but only under certain circumstances. Amber seeks to successfully avoid the need for dice to punctuate action by using it to feed back that uncertainty to compliment its wider themes. Uncertainty in action punctuation contributes to the the paranoia and uncertainty the character feels playing the game, while also giving you god-like power and resources. An interesting juxtaposition.
The problem with Amber Diceless is that there is no mechanical reinforcement for character, so as the game advances (or emotional investment heightens) the difference between a player’s personality and their character breaks down, because the action is not well contained and the moments un-punctuated. If it were, it would enforce character, but that kind of secure ground might undermine Amber's themes of uncertainty. I love Amber Diceless, but without profound trust between the players and GMs it breaks down pretty quickly, specifically because of a lack of clear and distinct punctuated action, although you won't usually hear it characterised like that. Criticisms against Amber Diceless usually centre around the idea that a player's mechanical influence is not felt; action feels arbitrary. Is it any arbitrary than having the GM interpret the dice under more traditional role-playing mechanics? No, not really, but the difference of players being able to interpret that moment of punctuated action for themselves is huge.
For my own game, however (remember: Fight to Survive), the action needed to be clear for two interconnected reasons. Maintaining a mechanically enforced distinction between player and character is more thematically relevant to feeling vulnerable and mortal, which are themes in the game. The nature (and repercussions) of success and failure need to be more distinct to enforce feelings of misery and of triumph, neither of which are thematically appropriate (at least on a consistent basis) to the god-like characters in Amber Diceless (and other diceless games—notice how they usually involve gods, or god-like beings, or some super-aspect of narrative control? There’s a reason that thematic consistency works) but is entirely necessary to feeling mortal and vulnerable.
So, one answer is: ultimate power on the player-end, such that your decisions cause importance rather than it coming from a shared experience, and the necessity of a paranoid setting. However, that solution does not help in a setting where your character isn't god-like, or you don't want to allow players' power to extend into larger narrative structures. Ultimately, for Fight to Survive I had to embrace the compromise of having a minor meta-narrative currency that was tossed around.
Design is compromise.